How to Talk with Tweens & Teens About Adoption
Teenagers! Whether you look forward to your children’s teen years or dread them, they will certainly bring change as your child prepare to leave the nest and enter the world as a fully-fledged adult. In addition to the physical developments during puberty and adolescence, many psychological changes take place as well.
- Ability for higher level and abstract thinking increases.
- Peer group takes on increased importance.
- Preoccupation with self.
- Individualizing – Figuring out who they are- Becoming their own person.
These internal changes and new maturity is often reflected in their understanding of adoption—they are able to see the bigger picture with all the sunshine and clouds that adoption brings. This deepening understanding can manifest in many ways and varies greatly by teen based on their personality, cognitive abilities, openness of their adoption, peer group, and family.
More Why Questions
Most young children accept what they are told about their adoption at face value. As they approach their teen years and into their teens they begin to understand the bigger picture of adoption and where they fit. Often they will ask deeper and harder to answer questions.
…Why did my birth mother place me?
…Do I have brothers and sisters?
…How do I know I don’t have a twin out there someplace?
…Plenty of single women keep their babies, so why did mine give me away?
…Why did my birth father go to prison?
…Why don’t I ever see my birth siblings?
Differing Attitude about Their Adoption
Young children often love to hear their adoption story and happily parrot it to anyone and everyone. They usually focus on the happiness their parents felt and how excited everyone was. In early elementary school most children begin to realize that adoption also means that they have two families. This realization happens if they have an open relationship with their birth family.
As our children enter middle school and high school their understanding of adoption deepens again. They begin to grasp that in addition to gaining a new family through adoption, they also lost a family, and sometimes lost a culture as well. This is both confusing and upsetting to some teens.
Give Them All Their Information
If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to share with your adolescent the information you have about her story, even the difficult parts. Generally speaking we encourage you to share this information in an age appropriate way with your child before they reach adolescents, but if you have not done so, start now filling in the details of your child’s life with what you know.
Don’t embellish or fill in the gaps with what you think to be true, but don’t actually know. Share what you know and acknowledge what you don’t.
If your child’s birth parents made poor decisions, share this information, but do so in the context of their life (if you have this information) to try to help your child put their actions in perspective. Stress that they are not in any way “fated” to repeat their birth parent’s mistakes.
If the hard information you have to share involves alcohol or drug addiction, use this as a starting point to talk about the risks of drug and alcohol use. Continue this discussion into their adolescents to include the genetic connections that exists with addiction so that your child is aware that they may have inherited a greater likelihood of addiction, and should proceed with caution and awareness.
I think it is helpful to also acknowledge alcoholism or drug addiction in their adoptive family. I know few families that have escaped this disease completely, so it helps to put things in perspective to acknowledge that many families have struggled.
Wondering about Birth Parents
Whether your pre-teen or teen talks about their birth family or not, they are likely thinking about them. They likely have more in depth questions about what lead to their placement. They are often intensely interested in their birth siblings, real and imagined.
Many adoptees have told us that they feel disloyal to their adoptive parents when they think about their birth families. Do your adolescent a favor and proactively tell them that it is perfectly normal to wonder and think about their first family. Through your words and your actions let them know that you are not threatened by their curiosity.
In addition to increased curiosity, many middle and high schoolers come to the realization that they could have had a completely different life if they had not been adopted. Young people will respond in different ways to this new understanding. Some will feel grateful that they avoided that “other” life, but others will idolize what their life might have been like with their birth family. “My birth mother would let me stay up as late as I want.” “It would be much better to have an older brother, like I would have if I my birth mother had not given me away.”
Some young people will become extremely angry at their birth parents and the decision they made that led to the adoption. Other kids might direct this anger towards their adoptive parents, reasoning that if they hadn’t adopted them, they wouldn’t have to deal with all of this. There aren’t easy answers with how to handle this anger. Try the following:
- Validate their anger .“I can see how mad you are at Suzy right now.”
- Try to understand their reasons without trying to correct their thinking. “Can you explain why you are so angry at me right now. I promise that I’ll just listen to you, but I really want to understand.”
- Empathize with them. “It really really sucks that Johnny is in jail and you have no information on him.”
- If they need more information to help them process their life story, do your best to get them this information.
- At another time, when they are not angry, try to discuss the issues that are causing them the most discomfort.
- Don’t take their anger personally. (And yes, I know exactly how hard this is—more on this later.)
Birth Parent Search
If your teen has a closed adoption, chances are good that they have thought about searching for their birth parents. They may decide against searching, at least at this time, but some teens will start the search on their own using the internet.
Parents are often afraid to bring up the topic of a birth parent search if they think that it isn’t in their adolescent’s best interest for fear of introducing the idea to them. You will not be introducing something that they haven’t thought of, so the best approach is to bring the subject out in the open.
If your teen is interested, but you believe that it isn’t in their best interest at this time, calmly share your reasoning and try to reach a compromise on what age would be good to start the search. Let him know that when he reaches that age you will help in any way you can.
Searching for their birth family is not about an adoptee’s dissatisfaction with their adoptive family—it is about coming to a full understanding of who they are in this world. Don’t make it about you, and don’t make your child have to hide this important part of their life from you. They probably need you more than ever when they approach this often scary and confusing time.
Delayed Launch-When Your Teen is Not Ready
Adolescence, with its accompanying need to stand on their own and become individual separate from their parents, is a particularly complex time with children that have experience trauma and children adopted at an older age. They and their parents often face competing goals. The bonds of attachment are still forming at the same time that the normal developmental urge is to pull away.
No easy answers exist, but Sean Delehant, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with the Center for Adoption Support and Education, says it helps to let our tweens and teens know that this feeling of wanting to pull away is normal. It also helps to give them permission to not launch at the same time as their non-adopted peers. Let them know that they are on a different developmental path than their friends, and that you support their need to live at home longer than their peers. It wouldn’t hurt to tell them that you need it as well.
The late great Dr. Greg Keck said:
It’s difficult to compare psychological development with physical development, however, there are parallels. Everyone would agree that you would not expect a four-month-old infant to begin speaking or walking. Families need to understand that they may have to wait longer than expected for their traumatized adopted children to “find their feet”: to get where they’re going, and ultimately, to be whatever successful means in their families. Parents can’t push the developmental accelerator in order to push the process faster than it is going. All development happens at its own pace, and while emotional attachments facilitate development, not every individual can act like a twenty-one-year- old simply because he is twenty-one….
…Parents can be supportive. They can be partners to their children, but they are sure to fail if they attempt to take control of the process. Since most of these delayed launchings finally get out of the gully between adolescence and adulthood, I think that it might be helpful for parents to remind themselves of some facts. They may need to repeat them out loud repeatedly. Here are some suggestions for a mantra parents might develop as they face tough times.
Most kids do fine in the end.
Very few of them get killed or maimed in the type of disasters their parents fearfully imagine.
Most of them don’t get in legal trouble or get arrested.
Most of them return to the base they have in their adoptive families.
Many of the difficult times fade as time goes on.
Things that seem tragic now may even be laughable one day.
Don’t Take it Personally
It hurts when our children begin to pull away from us. We have spent their childhoods building up our relationship, so even though we know it is a developmental task of the teen years, it feels scary as they start to pull away. Most parents feel this to some extent, but it is particularly hard for adoptive parents. We wonder if our bond is strong enough to withstand this separation. Will they pull away never to come back?
As hard as it is to do—don’t take it personally. Remind yourself that most adolescents pull away in order to eventually stand on their own. Trust that the relationship you have built is more than strong enough for this growth.
Remind yourself daily that the goal of parenthood is to launch self-sufficient, loving, caring good human beings into the world. That is your job and for this launch to be successful, your teen must differentiate themselves from you.
How To Talk Adoption When They Don’t Want to Listen
Monosyllabic responses (yes, no, fine, Idunno) are the hallmark of many tweens and teens. Your formerly “Chatty Cathy” who couldn’t wait to share all the details of her day with you, now looks put-upon if asked if she had a good day. This withdrawal is often seen around discussions about adoption. Your attempts at beginning a conversation about adoption or birth parents may well be met with rolled eyes, deep sighs, and protestations of “Do we have to talk about this now?!?”
Adoptive parents walk a fine line in discussing adoption if their teens and tweens are resistant. We want to respect their independence and not push the discussion if they are not interested, but at the same time we want them to know that we are open to their questions.
It’s tempting for parents to just let the subject drop and wait until their teen bring up any questions. The problem with this approach is that an undiscussed subject, particularly an emotion-laden topic such as adoption, becomes harder to discuss after it has remained dormant for a while. Your young person may forget that you have always been open to talking about adoption and interpret your quiet as a sign that you are uncomfortable with the topic.
The best approach is to periodically bring up some aspect of adoption and birth parents, then follow your teen’s lead on how far the discussion goes. The analogy I use is to occasionally throw the (adoption) ball to them, but they get to decide whether to catch it or let it drop. If it drops, try again in a few months. Look for natural opportunities to start the discussion.
“I wonder if you get your musical talent from your birth father?”
“Some people think that the way adoption is portrayed on the ____ show is unrealistic. What do you think?”
“I always think of your birth mom on your birthday. Do you think of her often?”
“Some adopted people are really curious about their birth family or wonder if they have birth siblings and want more information or to meet them. Do you think about this sometimes?”
“You haven’t called your birth mother in a while. Do you want to give her a call this weekend?”
A great opportunity to talk about birth parents is by discussing genetics. Most middle and high schoolers study genetics in biology at school. Almost every middle schooler has the homework assignment of completing a punnett square on the eye colors and tongue rolling ability in their family. These assignments can be troublesome for some adopted tweens and teens, but they open up the perfect opportunity to discuss birth parents and the traits they likely inherited from their birth parents.
If you have contact or the ability to contact your child’s birth parent, ask your child if they would like to do their genetic assignment on their birth family rather than the adoptive family. If you don’t have the ability to contact the birth family, use these assignments as a way to talk about traits that they might have inherited from their birth families.
Work on Your Relationship
For some reason many adults stop playing and having fun with their children when they reach their teens. They may assume that their adolescent doesn’t want to hang out with their parents or they think there is nothing the family can do together that everyone will enjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Teens crave a real relationship with their parents. Yes, it is true that you may have to be flexible on what you find to do together, and it is true that you can’t necessarily be in charge of all the details, but it is not only possible to have a blast with your tweens and teens, it is vital for helping your child work through the issues that adoption may raise during adolescence.
By the time our kids are 15 or so, the only real power we have as parents is our relationship with them. These are the years to truly focus on strengthening this relationship.
I have written extensively on this topic, and I truly believe that if you do one thing as a result of reading this article, please read Best Parenting Advice Ever (and it’s not what you think) and That Relationship Thing: The Art of Parenting.
Sources: Creating a Family Radio Show on “How to Talk with Tweens and Teens about Adoption”. You can listen to the interview with two adoption social workers/therapists.
Image credit: Garry Knight
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